Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Ferns are looking forward to a return to celebrating Mass in front of a congregation again, albeit one that is limited in number due to Covid-19 social distancing restrictions.
From yesterday (Monday, June 29), churches are allowed to welcome gatherings of parishioners while observing a two-metre distance rule - an earlier suggested limit of 50 on the number attending Mass, was removed by the Government, following concern from church authorities.
'Looking into a camera has not been ideal but we had to go with the guidelines', said Diocesan Press Officer Fr John Carroll of the livestream broadcasting of many Masses for the past few months.
'I think people have been tremendously patient with us - some people were pressuring us to come back - but people have been patient overall', he said.
Fr Carroll said the advice to priests in 81 churches in towns and villages throughout the Diocese is: 'We don't want you to open your doors until you are ready.' Preparations have been taking place in many churches in recent weeks in anticipation of the lifting of lockdown restrictions which were brought forward from a later date to June 29.
The re-opening measures include sanitising stations and floor markings to encourage hand hygiene and distancing while stewards will attend at Masses to assist people who may be confused about where to sit.
According to Fr Carroll, parishioners will see three types of seats in churches: family seating, where related groups can sit together; individual seats; and areas marked 'not for use'.
'We are operating on the principle of two metres until such time as it is reduced to two metres', he said.
Priests are advised to wear protective masks and gloves when offering Communion. 'It is up to individual priests to adapt arrangements as they see fit. In Barntown, I will be asking people who wish to receive Communion to stay behind after Mass. That's the way I'm going to do it for the first four weeks', said Fr Carroll.
'When giving out Communion, it's better to wear a mask and gloves but wearing a mask while saying Mass would be difficult because your voice would be muffled.'
Mass booklets are discouraged but the provision of once-off material that people take home with them, is being considered. 'I think, generally, we would ask people to bear with us as it as it is a learning moment for all of us and we'll take our time and learn together.'
Fr Carroll said the original limit of 50 which was reviewed by the Government, would have been fine for smaller churches but larger churches can easily take more people while observing social distancing.
'One size doesn't fit all. In smaller churches, it's as much as they will get in but larger churches can take more and still observe the guidelines.'
Celebrating Mass in an empty church was a strange experience at first. 'Nothing prepared us for that particular reality and it came so quickly. I got used to it but for the first three or four times, it was utterly surreal. It did get easier.' However, the fact that people based around Ireland and abroad were able to tune in to Masses in their local parishes, meant that priests received communications from people they wouldn't normally have reached.
'I had communications from people in Australia, America and even a couple in Ethiopia', said Fr Carroll. The Glynn/Barntown parish priest said the greatest sacrifice of all was made by people who were bereaved during the lockdown.